Speech to Forum on Children and Family Violence
Hon Laila Harre Speech Notes
Monday July 1 2002
Speech to UNICEF Forum on Children and
Auckland Town Hall
t’s before 7 this morning, July 1, and the first official day for paid parental leave.
I have just finished a radio interview with Bill Ralston of Radio Pacific.
His last words were “well we’re buggered then”.
We’d covered the usual ground, the self-employed, the costs and benefits.
Then I talked about some of the women who would be eligible for leave and why making it possible for them to take leave was important not just for them and their babies but for all of us.
I talked about Pacific Island mothers. These are women who have high rates of workforce participation. They are also much more likely than other mothers to return to work before their babies are three months old. There has been a very worrying decline in the once high breastfeeding rate of Pacific babies in NZ. Paid parental leave will give many of these women a chance to establish breastfeeding before returning to work.
I made the point to Bill Ralston, and this is when he began to despair for our future, that it was these babies we would be relying on to take New Zealand into the knowledge age.
We have a falling birth rate. Our children are more likely to be born in our least resourced families and communities than our wealthiest ones.
And most people, and certainly most people up here, just haven’t faced up to what this means.
If we want the knowledge society to be more than just a cheap slogan then when we have to offer more than cheap solutions.
We can’t just leave it to St Cuthberts and Auckland Grammar to produce our knowledge workforce.
Neither the new right nor the third way can change the basic facts here.
Unless there is a fully resourced, unequivocal and courageous campaign to put children and their families at the top of the budget agenda then it’s not just those kids who will miss out. It’s New Zealand.
The deep inequality that new right governments from 1984 to 1999 bequeathed us not only wrecked havoc in the lives of individual people and their children, it has also deeply damaged our capacity to develop.
Those on the lowest incomes have never been compensated for the 1991 benefit cuts, yet a third of our children under the age of 15 live in families supported by a benefit.
In fact those families are now worse off than they were immediately after the benefit cuts in 1991 because their family support payments haven’t kept pace with the rising cost of living. What’s more, the levels of income from which family support is abated have been getting lower every year too. That means that every year less families qualify for less money.
To add insult to injury we are left with the deeply discriminatory Child Tax Credit. A $15 a week per child payment which you miss out on if you’re too poor, and lose if you’re too rich. And by too rich we’re talking a household income of $27,000 a year.
The Alliance is committed to a universal family benefit paid to every family for every child and funded by a progressive income tax system.
At the same time we will cut the taxes of those on the lowest incomes.
Targeting support to children through means testing leads to punitive effective marginal tax rates and creates administrative complexity that costs money and makes it hard for people to get what they are entitled to.
We should use the tax system to do our targeting for us.
The same applies to health care. When families defer a visit to the doctor, or don’t pick up the medicine they need because they can’t afford it we have a hospital admission waiting to happen.
This year the Alliance argued through the budget process for funding to deliver free doctors visits and medicines to all school aged children and not just those under 6. Labour said no. It would have cost around $35 million, or a tenth of a per cent of government expenditure.
We asked as a minimum for the inflation indexing of family support payments from last year to this year. Labour said no to that too.
We have released the Agenda for Children. The analysis and the goals are absolutely solid. The Alliance made sure that the goal to end child poverty was there is in the strongest possible terms.
But we must now back it with action.
And that just won’t happen unless the Alilance is there keeping the pressure on Labour to deliver more.
The underlying problem is that neither Labour, nor National, are prepared to reallocate a big enough share of our national income to meeting the needs of families with children.
In his Budget speech this year, the Minister of Finance endorsed the current level of government spending that stands at around 33 per cent of our gross domestic product.
This is just too low. Another two per cent and we could make a real difference for our children and their families. And we would still be below the level of spending in almost every other social democratic country in the world.
Spending on children is not an optional extra that can wait for economic growth.
We have worked well in government with Labour, but after two and half years at the cabinet table I know that unless we are back there is no chance at all of a meaningful redistribution of our wealth and resources to families with children.
A universal family benefit which extends the child tax credit to all children will cost over $500 million. Free health care and enough money to put more teachers in our classrooms on higher wages will cost. But it will cost a lot less than deferring the investment.
And it is time we were completely honest with each other about where the money needs to come from. By ruling out all income tax increases Labour has ruled out a substantial shift of resources to children if they win a majority in government. And while the Greens have raised the issues, there are only so many times you can spend a carbon tax. Once actually. Let’s face it. The root of the problem is the massive redistribution of resources that has happened over the last 20 years.
Even Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have abandoned the third way when it comes to distributing more resources to families.
And we can’t fudge issues around family violence either. I heard reports from the UNICEF conference last week of Act MP Steven Frank’s contribution.
It seems that Act stand for zero tolerance to crime except when it comes to violence against children. It’s shameful.
The Alliance has spent three years on the inside pushing for the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act and I believe we are almost there.
I will give my assurance to parents that the repeal of section 59 will not mean that parents are hauled in front of the courts for trivial technical assaults. We will make sure of that.
The Alliance wants increased funding for the implementation of Te Rito – the Family Violence Prevention Strategy released in February this year.
We strongly support the strategy and the community and government people making it happen on the ground.
I want to conclude on a personal note.
When I became involved with the development of children’s and youth policy within government I had my eyes opened. And my ears.
For too long we have disregarded the citizenship rights of children and young people. We have let many of them down dreadfully.
I am ashamed as an adult New Zealander of our collective failure to honour our children and to meet their needs.
Even when we know we can.
I want to acknowledge the people like Ian Hassall, Ian Shirley, Ann Smith, and Alison Blaiklock whose work on the place of childhood and the primacy of children has been nothing short of inspirational to me in the work that I do.
Above all, I want to acknowledge the children who have begun to remind us in the simplest possible terms what it takes to make them happy.
And it doesn’t take much.
The intermediate school student who told me that her happiest moment was as she clasped her Dad’s hand on the roller coaster at Rainbow’s End and he looked into her eyes. She just wished her whole family could afford to be there together sometime.
The primary school child who said one thing he’d really like would be for Mum or Dad to be able to stay home with him when he had a day off school sick.
I have talked to hundreds of children as we have developed policies with them. Their capacity for loving and trusting adults is extraordinary.
Can we say, as individuals with power and money that we deserve it?